Coach Victor Nazario had no shortage of material to draw on as he launched into a pep talk for the Beach Channel Campus Dolphins before their playoff football game on Saturday.
Less than two weeks before, the Rockaway Peninsula — home to Beach Channel and many of its students — had borne the full force of Hurricane Sandy. Since the storm, members of the football team, like so many others, had been camped out in cold, dark apartments or bouncing among family, friends, and hotels elsewhere — anywhere with power and heat and access to food.
On Thursday, Nazario rushed to organize a practice to prepare for the Saturday matchup, but he was not sure if enough players would show up. A day earlier, just 15 percent of Beach Channel students made it to the school’s first day in a new location.
Now, just before kickoff, Nazario looked around the Port Richmond High School cafeteria, the team’s makeshift locker room, and saw that he had enough players to field a team. His voice cracked with emotion almost as soon as he opened his mouth.
“Needless to say, the last two weeks have really tested our character and our resilience and, in my opinion, you guys passed in flying colors,” Nazario said.
Before heading out onto the field, Nazario reminded the players to relish their time on the field.
“We handle our business,” he said. “And then we go home to deal with the dark.”
Darkness has been a resolute companion after sunset for the tens of thousands of Rockaway residents still without power two weeks after the storm. Cell phone service on the peninsula remains spotty, basic needs are in short supply, and traffic is clogged with vehicles from the National Guard and other organizations brought in to assist in recovery.
For the players, talk of “the darkness” is one part communal joke, one part shorthand to describe their new normal.
Seniors Marcus Wilcox, a co-captain, and Nkoze Stewart said the kitchen has become the most popular room in their apartments — not for what food gets cooked, but because huddling around an open stove is the only way to stay warm.
Junior running back Chris Reed and his family decided to stay in their 10th-floor apartment because his grandmother, who lives four floors above, didn’t want to evacuate. Reed said he’s spent the last two weeks shuttling supplies up and down dozens of flights of stairs for his family.
“At least you’re staying in shape,” Nazario told Reed by way of consolation.
“How can a carpet be cold?” said Michael Stanley, a junior wide receiver. Stanley had been been staying in East New York but slept on his cousin’s floor Friday night back on the peninsula so he could make the early morning team bus to Staten Island. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”
Stanley is one of several Beach Channel plays to have fled the remote, 11-mile-long Rockaway peninsula entirely. Senior co-captain Justin Zemser, a wide receiver, headed to Long Island after a gas leak in his apartment building forced all of the residents out. Star defensive lineman and University of Connecticut-bound Folorunso Fatukasi is living in a Brooklyn motel room with his parents and two brothers. Senior left tackle Roger Arrington evacuated more than 100 miles away upstate.
Of course, if Sandy never struck, the 12th seeded Dolphins (5-3) still would have been steep underdogs against the fifth-seeded Port Richmond Red Raiders (6-2). Port Richmond recruits from a student body of more than 2,100, but because the city is in the process of closing Beach Channel, its student body has shrunk to just 400. New schools in the building, whose students are also eligible for the team, add only 1,200 more potential recruits.
Still, the storm added to the odds against the Dolphins.
Nazario found out on Tuesday that the Public Schools Athletic League, which oversees sports in the city’s public school system, intended to move forward with the playoffs with or without the Dolphins.
Nazario had a choice to make: forfeit or round up players he hadn’t seen in weeks and ask them to take a break from their families to play the game.
But after he spoke with Zemser, Wilcox, and Breland Archbold, his senior co-captains, the decision became clear: The Dolphins would not cede the game to Sandy.
“We told [the coaches] that we’d get the players if they get us the equipment,” Wilcox said.
But the Dolphins still didn’t have a practice field. The field at Beach Channel campus was turned into a landing pad for emergency helicopters and Nazario said he cringed when he first saw what they’ve done to his 50-yard line. On Thursday and Friday, the team practiced at nearby Far Rockaway High School, which is located further in land.
On Saturday, 25 Beach Channel players suited up to take on about 40 Red Raiders in a contest that Nazario compared to the battle between David and Goliath.
“Everything that you’ve endured, it’s like ridiculous that you guys even thought about playing this football game,” Nazario said in his speech. He added, “Everything that we’ve been through for the last two weeks, winning this football game should actually be easy.”
In the Hollywood version of the playoff game, Nazario’s speech would have foreshadowed a come-from-behind victory over both Port Richmond and tragedy. But in real life, the Red Raiders jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and never looked back.
Beach Channel gained momentum briefly in the second quarter. Archbold, the team’s star quarterback, ran the ball 80 yards for a touchdown to make the score 14-6. He had the Dolphins driving again when Port Richmond intercepted a bobbled pass and returned it for a touchdown. The final score was 38-6, sending the Red Raiders on to the next round of the playoffs.
For Beach Channel, the loss marked the end of the season. After the game, Nazario cried some more, but this time he had company. As he gathered his team for a final sendoff, he thanked his players again for overcoming steep odds even to step on to the field.
Fatukasi told his teammates to stop crying, to be proud of their performance. Then he was wiping tears from his own eyes [VIDEO].
Spirits were higher back in the cafeteria. The players ate pizza — courtesy of Port Richmond — and basked in the last few minutes of fluorescent light and radiated heat.
“I wouldn’t have been able to live with that feeling of ‘what if?’” said Zemser, the senior. “At least now I know we had a shot at it.”
“Now we gotta go fix this town up,” he added.
After the game: “No more crying…We’re leaving this field with respect.”